Why the Legal Profession Needs More Latin

It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally focused in on the primary difference between lawyers and other professionals (especially doctors and scientists).  We don’t use enough Latin!

When science needs to describe a particular idea, it invents a completely new word to do so.  Often, it will borrow parts of words from fancy languages like Latin and Greek to come up with a word that may be difficult to spell, impossible to pronounce without coaching, but in the end is a unique combination of phonemes that has one very particular meaning, subject to no confusion.  Go look up esophagogastroduodenoscopy if you have any doubts.

When law, on the other hand, needs to describe a particular idea, it borrows some innocent, unassuming word in common parlance, a word that is completely unaware of the torture it is about to go through.  “Gift” for example, means completely different things depending on whether it’s in the scope of gift tax or income tax.  “Malice,” as far as libel goes, has nothing to do with what your ordinary English speaker would understand as its meaning.  And then there is that bane of first-year torts, “cause.”

Where law does use Latin, there is often less confusion because the terms are more specialized.  Res ipsa loquitur has a very particularized meaning.  (I have always been a little confused as to how an opinion “by the court” (per curiam) could have a dissent, though.)  Thus, my suggestion for cleaning up the legal profession would be to make up more words!  It will result in less confusion outside the profession while still requiring our specialized skills. 

I’m sure our Dean would have some great Latin suggestions.

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Careful Whom You Email!

Want to email professors asking them to take a stance on a particular college-related issue?  Not a safe idea if you attend Michigan State University.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (“FIRE”) reported last week that a member of the student government at M.S.U. was found guilty of violating the university’s “spam” policy, which prohibits the sending of an unsolicited email to more than 20-30 recipients over two days. 

The student emailed a hand-picked group of 391 faculty members (roughly eight percent of the total at M.S.U.), asking them to speak up about a proposal by the school administration to change the calendar.  What is truly mind-boggling about the decision to discipline that student is that the administration had itself solicited comments on the change from the faculty; the email was designed to encourage the faculty to take advantage of that offer.

At least this violation of a network’s terms of use policy wasn’t found criminal.

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On Testing Legal Skills

Since we’re all in the middle of finals right now, I thought I would share a quick problem, an incongruous message, that’s been bothering me.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard a law professor say something like, “No matter how well you think you know the rule, read it again every time you need to use it.” Almost all of you. Now keep it up if you’ve heard this from more than one professor. Still almost all of you. I agree that this is very good advice; rules change, subtleties escape us on first readings, and sometimes our memory is just wrong.

Now, raise your hand if you’ve heard a law professor explain a test like, “Although this is open book, you won’t have time to look up the rules. You need to know them very well yourself and just use the materials for the few you don’t know.” That’s almost the very definition of how an open-book exam is usually structured.

I’m not really sure the two are compatible.

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